Amber Waves of Wheat

Food and Travel, Ingredient, Regional Food
on September 13, 2012
Handful of Wheat
Mark Boughton

Kansas isn’t called the Breadbasket of America for nothing.The mid-western state grows nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wheat, making it the top wheat-producing region in the country.

Just ask Ken Wood. A fourth-generation Kansas wheat farmer, Ken’s grandfather bought his 3,000-acre farm from the bank on a foreclosure some 75 years ago. Today Ken tills about half of that for wheat, making him one of 29,000 wheat farmers in the U.S. and like most of them, he was born into it.

“I started wheat farming right out of high school,“ more than 35 years ago, says Ken, “just like my father and his father before him.” The difference now, however, is that much of his wheat is most likely headed to foreign shores. About 50 percent of annual U.S. wheat production is exported to countries like Japan, Nigeria and Egypt.

The type of wheat he and other farmers grow has also changed. While hard red winter wheat, grown in Kansas and originally brought to the state by Russian Mennonite immigrants in the 1870’s, still dominates the industry – it’s the kind you’ll find in most all-purpose flours — it isn’t the only kind you’ll find. There’s also soft wheat, white wheat, spring wheat and durum wheat (mostly used for pasta). The kind of wheat you’ll find largely depends on where you live. Spring wheat tends to grow in the north, soft wheat in the east.

Two Tidbits About Wheat

  • Although Katharine Lee Bates penned “American the Beautiful” in Colorado more than 125 years ago, it was her train ride through the heartland of Kansas that inspired the words, “for amber waves of grain.”
  • There are 6 classes of wheat: Hard red winter wheat  – best for all-purpose baking; hard red spring wheat – usually blended with red winter wheat; soft red winter wheat – good for crackers, cookies and pretzels; soft white wheat  – cake flour; hard white wheat – seen as white whole wheat flour; durum – pasta flour.

By Diane Welland

Check out our story on Farm to Market Bread Company, a Kansas City favorite.